Emotional Politics Won the 2016 Election

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Jeremy C. Young is an Assistant Professor of History at Dixie State University and the author of "The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940" (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). He is a historian of the 19th and 20th century United States, with particular interests in the history of emotions, social movements, and political communication. This post was first published by Hippo Reads.

Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan speaks at the Democratic National Convention, July 3, 1908.  Library of Congress


“I don’t believe you change hearts,” Hillary Clinton told a group of activists in August 2015. “I believe you change laws.” Even then, Clinton’s bloodless description of political life seemed strangely out of step with the times, and Donald Trump’s stunning victory in November rendered it a fitting epitaph for Clinton’s career. On both the left and the right, popular desire for emotional politics has never been greater; the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders came in large part through high-octane rallies that drew thousands of passionate supporters. Clinton, in contrast, promoted a transactional form of politics in which policy wonkery took center stage and emotion lagged behind. Trying “to stir up the passions of people,” she opined in October 2015, is “what a demagogue does.”

Clinton’s dismissal of all political emotion as demagoguery misunderstood the moment and may have sealed her electoral fate. More important, Clinton broke with a rich tradition of emotional advocacy on the left that stretches back to the 1800s. For decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liberal reformers engaged in a unique type of charismatic speechmaking called “personal magnetism” that consciously sought to move and inspire audiences. Orators trained in this style learned to expand the pitch range of their voices, to speak poetically, and to produce an operatic tone by lowering their voice boxes – all in service of emotional persuasion. Clinton lost the 2016 election because she ceded this sort of political theater to Trump. As the reality television star gets ready to take office, Democrats face a stark reality: they will continue to lose until they rediscover the historical politics of emotion liberals once championed.

The inspirational oratory of the left is perhaps most famously embodied by William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” the former Nebraska congressman shouted, gesturing wildly to illustrate the urgency of currency reform. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The delegates’ response was unlike anything reporters had ever seen. “In the spoken word of the orator,” wrote one, “thousands of men had heard the unexpressed sentiments and hopes of their own inmost souls.” The audience cheered for half an hour; afterwards, the little-known Bryan was nominated for president by acclaim.

Bryan was not alone in deploying personal magnetism as a political tool of the left. In 1909, progressive author Herbert Croly wrote that every “exceptional individual” should learn “to impose himself on the public”; only “some democratic evangelist” could bring about a truly progressive society. Dozens of magnetic leaders were already taking his advice. “The people are wild with enthusiasm,” reported Socialist politician Eugene V. Debs after giving a speech in 1896. “Last night thousands fought like tigers to shake my hand.… Such exhibitions of love & devotion, men & women & children I never witnessed.” Observers described California governor Hiram Johnson, elected in 1910, as a “political revivalist” who inspired “a moral fervor” in audiences, “fusing the assemblies into almost a spiritual frenzy.”

There is no evidence that emotional politics directly increased vote totals for left-wing candidates; even Bryan lost his race in 1896. Personal magnetism did, however, increase voters’ enthusiasm and engagement with political reform. “Ever since you made your speech at the convention,” wrote one Bryan supporter, “I have been talking and working for you and the cause you are striving for.” “I believe you the second Moses,” wrote another, “who will lead back the poor blind oppressed laborer…to the road of Salvation.” A veteran Socialist explained his devotion to Debs and his cause: “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man.… As long as he’s around I believe it myself.”

In the 1920s, popular radio broadcasts introduced a more conversational speaking style, and personal magnetism quickly fell out of favor; a speaker using its techniques would fare poorly with modern audiences. Nevertheless, many voters still long for an emotional connection with politicians. Today, when the left’s success increasingly hinges on its ability to energize voters and deliver them to the polls, opponents of emotional politics risk depressing voter turnout or driving voters into the arms of the right.

It’s easy for Democrats to criticize Trump as a demagogue or his voters as unreasoning dupes. In truth, however, American democracy has never operated primarily on the basis of reasoned debate. Emotion is the common currency of American politics, the vital democratic connection between leaders and followers. Clinton’s greatest failure in 2016 was in treating political emotion as a threat to democracy, rather than as the essence of it. “To drive real progress,” Clinton conceded this past July, “you have to change both hearts and laws.” But Clinton failed to do the first of those things; now, as a guest at the inauguration instead of its star, she won’t have a chance to do the second.



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